The trouble with the argument raging between the gas industry and environmentalists over the impacts of shale gas drilling and production is that neither side has the data it needs to back up its position, the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory's (NETL) Dan Soeder told NGI. That's about to change, but probably not as quickly as either side would like.

Soeder, NETL research group leader for shale gas, is helping to lead a project that will examine one Marcellus Shale drill site in Pennsylvania before drilling begins and after it stops in order to determine what the real impacts are of the activity. The idea for the project came from NETL and about a half dozen federal agencies. Major shale player Range Resources Inc. stepped up and offered to make available one of its future drill sites for preliminary study as well as monitoring during and after drilling activity.

"The idea is to actually do a baseline assessment for about a year and then as they move on and drill and produce and then clear off to just look at those impacts," Soeder said.

To help with the study Soeder said he is hoping other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and others will become involved. "I know that nobody has a lot of money but it shouldn't be that expensive of an operation. These guys are doing this monitoring anyway; it would just be focused."

A big benefit of the effort will be the fact that everyone will be studying the same site, so findings can be more readily compared. Range has yet to determine the site, but Soeder said he's hoping it will be in a relatively consistent area, such as a forest area or farmland.

While it garners the most attention, Soeder said the main concern among professionals looking at Marcellus development generally is not hydraulic fracturing. He said worries that hydraulic fractures can contaminate aquifers are not realistic. However, the handling of hydraulic fracturing fluids and other chemicals at the surface, including flowback fluids, is a concern, but these things are manageable, he said.

"There have been a lot of systematic environmental studies of this and there's a lot of conversation going on out there about how dreadful all this is. But there isn't any data to back any of that up. And then on the other hand you've got industry saying it's not a problem at all and there really isn't any data to back that up either.

"So the idea is to try to get some data on the ground so we get an understanding of what the real issues are here so that we can focus on the real issues."

Range will benefit from the study as well, Soeder said. "They get blamed for a lot of stuff that they don't do, and I understand where they're coming from," he said.

Earlier this month Range made is first voluntary disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluid chemicals it is using in Pennsylvania (see Daily GPI, Aug. 13).

From start to finish the study will take a couple of years, Soeder said. "We need to get some baseline data because we need to understand how the site is behaving to start with. And then we need to look at the disturbance to that and then we need to look at the recovery. So given the process, it's probably going to be at least two years.

"It would have been nice if we could have started this a few years ago and then we would have the baseline data, but it's just one of those things. The whole Marcellus is moving very fast, and it's taken the government agencies by surprise; it's taken a lot of people by surprise. These guys in the gas industry just move forward."

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